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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

congestion pricing

(1980’s | bureaucratese)

This week Lex Maniac lops the “e” off “urbane” and goes urban. Congestion pricing is in the news again, at least here in New York, as our solons ready themselves for another push to improve traffic flow. The phrase itself is not new; the first hit I found in LexisNexis dates from 1979. But only a couple of months ago I had to explain it to my father. (No knock on the old man — where he lives the subject doesn’t come up, and besides, we all have expressions that we’ve never heard though they’ve been familiar to everyone else for years.) Congestion pricing involves charging drivers to enter the parts of the city with the highest traffic density (in Manhattan, that usually means below 59th Street, or maybe 96th) at certain times of the day, with the goal of raising money and discouraging people from motoring through the busiest parts of town. The phrase existed before 1980 but remained a specialized term until after 1990, I would say. Even then, it was frequently placed in quotation marks and glossed, but it had become the accepted term for that form of traffic engineering. It remains a technical term without metaphorical implications or traces. It may also be used in reference to regulating airplane traffic — for example, raising landing fees during popular travel times. But normally congestion pricing is more terrestrial.

It’s typically sold as a way to reduce vehicular traffic, prefaced by terrifying statistics, like the average rush-hour speed along 34th Street, or whether a Boy Scout can outrun a crosstown bus. Reduced traffic has other benefits besides getting everyone where they’re going faster. The first time congestion pricing came up in New York, in 1986, the city was in violation of the Clean Air Act and had to find ways to reduce carbon monoxide and ozone. Less traffic means less stress and a healthier environment. What’s so terrible about that?

Officials in charge of high traffic density areas have a ritual of proposing congestion pricing from time to time, only to see it crushed ruthlessly. And that’s probably what will happen this go-round, though the current plan’s backers have tried to address objections made to previous versions. And who knows? Now that “cashless tolling” (another blot on the vocabulary) has settled in, even the skittish have gotten used to the technology. All you need to do is build gantries — so that’s what a gantry is! — at every entry point with a bunch of EZPass readers, just like on the Verrazano Bridge, and watch those virtual dollars pile up.

The principle is as simple as forcing drivers to pay for maintenance of the roads, because without the roads there wouldn’t be any drivers. That makes sense, right? The people who use the thoroughfares should pay for them, and gasoline taxes don’t cover all the costs, certainly not in New York. Road building and maintenance entail significant future costs, so congestion pricing redresses a perennial weak spot of our form of industrial capitalism, which is accounting for future expenditure made inevitable by present actions. Yet there’s little political appetite for infringing the sacred right to drive, so they’re selling the policy as new revenue for the subway. Which will need it if the overcrowded, delay-prone trains are to absorb still more commuters.

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